The Magazine

Contradictory Beckett

Voluble and silent, funny and grim.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By JOHN SIMON
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Beckett's relations with women were peculiar. The set designer Jocelyn Herbert, a close friend, commented savvily on Sam's marriage. He had met the pianist Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil in 1937 and became involved with her. But he did not marry her till 1961, then stayed married until her death in 1989.

"A lot of it," Herbert said, "was gratitude and loyalty. I think he felt remorse for . . . so many friends he got drunk with. She didn't drink. And he had after all endless other women."

What about them? The title of an early Beckett novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, reveals much. Sam's beloved mother had a cigar-store-Indian face. Suzanne was no less homely; "a stumpy little woman," Esslin called her. Cousin Peggy in Kassel could at least pass for fair to middling. In Paris, Peggy Guggenheim was decidedly plain. Of the lovers I know about, only the Joyces' daughter Lucia was good-looking; is it significant that she was to go mad? Looks, evidently, did not matter much. The German actress who starred in Berlin's Happy Days recalled, "All women, including myself . . . had the feeling that they had to shelter him, to embrace him . . . as a human being, not necessarily as a man." But how many steps from one kind of embrace to the other?

To his frequent leading lady, Billie Whitelaw, then in a London revival of Happy Days, he complained that he "only recently realized how much [he] disliked it: particularly the first act." But actors adored acting for him, however exacting a director he was. Thus Horst Bollmann, the Berlin Estragon: "I consider that my encounter with Beckett is reward enough in itself for having been an actor all my life." So many performers noted that within the rigors imposed by Beckett's directing, they could most truly express themselves. This was especially true in the numerous productions performed in prisons by the inmates, who found the various confinements of Beckett's characters particularly applicable to themselves.

Beckett strongly disagreed with Wittgenstein's assertion that, about what cannot be said, one must remain silent: "That is the whole point. We must speak about it." Yet such hard, desperate pursuit in the work did not preclude pleasures in life, where hedonism mingled with asceticism. Beckett enjoyed his whisky and brandy to the extent of forcing them on his guests. Forbidden drink while he was getting vitamin injections, he exclaimed, "It is a bugger of a bastard of a bitch. . . . I'll make up for it later."

But you could not pay for a drink in his company; his generosity was legendary. He distributed his Nobel Prize money among his penurious friends. To Roger Blin, along with the hefty check, he wrote, "Neither thanks nor 'no.'" And always welcome, too, was his enduring wit. Told that "you pack a lot into a two-page text," he shot back, "I also pack a lot out." When his friend, the writer Raymond Federman, solicited him for a prestigious interview in The Paris Review, back came a one-line answer: "Dear Raymond, Sorry, I have no views to inter."

James Knowlson's account of Beckett's last phase, eventually in an old folks' home, is enormously moving. Sam was still writing, though he found it "very painful, very difficult. . . . It gets harder and harder to write a line that's honest." As the writer and filmmaker Anthony Minghella put it, "I think the healing [laughter] gradually disappeared from his writing. [But] no matter how miserable or dark or cruel it appears, his work is also profoundly uplifting. It's honest, naked, leavened with mischief. And full of pity."

Beckett admired Proust (though his book about Proust's work is impenetrable), Sean O'Casey, Goethe, and Yeats, and could quote, always in context, Yeats, Joyce, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Nicolas Chamfort, even the now almost forgotten Jose Maria de Heredia. He would recite a whole Mallarmé sonnet on a walk with friends. Rightly, he preferred Camus to Sartre.

"What remains is music," he said. The list of the composers he liked is impressive, stretching from Haydn to Webern, but excluding Bach and all of Wagner save Tristan. Strauss's Four Last Songs, Berg, and Bartok also made the cut. Fine arts similarly mattered. In Berlin, Ruby Cohn reports, he knew what was in every gallery. He sent her to see Caspar David Friedrich's Two Men Observing the Moon, which he, perhaps whimsically, claimed was the inspiration for writing Godot. He liked Kokoschka's early work very much, the later stuff less. He could recall exactly a Poussin in Ireland's National Gallery. And to the very end, he was interested in what was going on in the world.

As I reflect on his career, I note that, early in life, Beckett told a friend, "I'm not interested in the normal. I'm only interested in the abnormal." Though Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett doesn't mention it, the last thing he wrote was a poem called "Comment dire," which he translated as "What Is the Word." Perfect bookends.

In an abnormal world such as ours, abnormality commands attention. But for the writer, the first and last problem is to find the right words. Beckett, as nearly as anyone, found them.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.